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CARES Act money disproportionately awarded to small schools in the Carolinas

A WCNC Charlotte analysis of federal spending records shows the initial stimulus package failed to equally distribute funding to colleges and universities.

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Hundreds of millions of dollars in CARES Act money continues to help colleges in the Carolinas expand virtual learning and put critical money in students' pockets to cover tuition, food, and housing, but a WCNC Charlotte investigation found little-known trade schools with few students disproportionately benefited from the first round of funding. 

Federal records show a Chinese school of medicine, religious colleges, and a school of cosmetology received the most per student while community colleges collected the least.

"You have these very small colleges that serve a small proportion of students and in most cases, a very small portion of low-income students, that received a significant share of funding when that funding could have been better distributed to colleges that really needed it," Center for American Progress Postsecondary Team Managing Director Antoinette Flores said. "Community colleges received a much smaller share of the funding whereas they share a higher proportion of students and low-income students in particular."

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WCNC Charlotte's analysis of U.S. Department of Education records found Jung Tao School of Classical Chinese Medicine in western North Carolina received the most CARES Act funding per student. Records show the school is home to dozens of students. The college's most recent tax form lists its yearly expenses at around $850,000. Jung Tao received $500,000 in aid from the Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund (HEERF), according to federal records.

"We did get HEERF emergency funds that we have passed through to students and that support has made all the difference for some who had need," Jung Tao President Dr. Sherri Green said.

HEERF gives money to both students and institutions to help cover the college impact of COVID-19 during the pandemic, but Flores, who works for a non-profit that supports progressive policies aimed at improving American lives, said the federal government didn't dole out those dollars equally during the initial round of funding.

"It wasn't equitable based on the students served," she said. "The department should have better accounted for the need of the institution and the students they serve."

If you need help paying for college, Nate talked with Dr. Stacey Raphal of Rise, an organization that helps make education accessible for all. 

Flores said the U.S. Department of Education's original formula provided a blanket $500,000 to many small schools regardless of their size and failed to prioritize colleges with part-time students, like community colleges. Records show community colleges like Central Piedmont, Gaston, and South Piedmont received much less per student.

"In the CARES Act, community colleges, they serve about 40% of the students, but they received less than 30% of the funding," Flores said.

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Central Piedmont Community College reports the institution has allocated all of its $5.3 million CARES Act student financial aid, but has not yet spent all of its CARES Act institutional funds, which can be used for technology, student support, PPE and more. According to CPCC, the initial grant money helped more than 6,000 students, 20% of whom lived in high-poverty zip codes and 70% of whom identified as minorities.

"We are being careful to apply the funds only in the manner specified," CPCC Vice President of Communications, Marketing & Public Relations Jeff Lowrance said. "With each new term, we're checking with students to see what kinds of assistance they might need related to the pandemic. Any unused funds will be returned."

CPCC records show the college still has more than $66 million from the CARES Act, Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations Act, and the American Rescue Plan to allocate, including more than $24 million in CRRSA and ARP student financial aid.

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The pandemic financial assistance continues to help students across the Carolinas like Haley Chuor. Furloughed and then laid off from her retail job, the Appalachian State University junior from Salisbury needed money to pay her bills. She was pleasantly surprised when HEERF money arrived in her account.

"I got $525 in my second installment," Chuor said, "My reaction was, 'Wow, this is a lot of money that is really going to help me pay for things I need to pay.' It feels a lot better knowing other classmates are getting it too."

Records show App State received below-average funding per student. Nonetheless, Chuor is thankful her school made the process easy, especially during a difficult time in her life.

"I just think the way App did it was the best," she said. "This extra money's helped me be able to actually go to therapy this past year. This really helped me have more time to heal from this year and better myself."

How much the majority of colleges and universities received from this CARES Act program is mostly based on their share of full-time students receiving Pell Grants, while the other 25% of the formula factored in remaining full-time enrollment numbers. Flores said the federal government adjusted its formula for subsequent rounds.

"We've a seen a more equitable distribution...which has been really critical," she said.

South Piedmont Community College received among the lowest CARES Act HEERF funding in the Carolinas, according to WCNC Charlotte's analysis. However, SPCC President Dr. Maria Pharr said in a statement the money has made a difference.

"South Piedmont Community College received both State and Federal COVID relief funds to provide emergency assistance to students who experienced significant negative impacts due to the pandemic and to mitigate the unexpected costs of maintaining high-quality instruction and service during the pandemic... Many of our students faced significant challenges with food insecurity, lack of technology, and health or child care issues. With the funding, we were able to provide our students with technology to access our virtual services and courses and with direct financial support for other needs covered by the legislation. The institutional portion of the funding also allowed us to implement safety measures, cover the additional expenses necessary to provide virtual instruction and services, and mitigate some of the financial losses that resulted from the pandemic-related shift in operations. 

During the pandemic, we were able to use COVID relief to implement several innovative educational and service programs to meet the needs of our community. Some of the examples include a slate of online short-term workforce programs in key fields which provide opportunities for displaced workers to have gainful employment within a short time frame; a virtual Associate's degree in a Year, where adults have their tuition capped at $1500 and earn their Associate in Arts degree in one year; implementation of Hy-Flex courses, which we will pilot this summer, where students can choose whether to attend the course in person, synchronous virtual, or asynchronous online and switch modalities as needed throughout the semester; and a series of virtual applications in student services that are easily navigable and highly engaging. 

While the true impact of the pandemic will likely be felt for years to come, we are grateful for the assistance granted under the COVID relief legislation to help us maintain continuity throughout the pandemic in our educational, workforce development, and business/industry support services. With the increase in vaccine opportunities, we hope our fall semester is reflective of pre-pandemic levels of in-person attendance with the added value of the innovative improvements inspired or hastened by the pandemic."

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Gaston College, meanwhile, said it awarded all of its HEERF money earmarked for students.

"Gaston College received $1,260,424 in funding via the Student Portion of the Higher Education Emergency Relief Funds (HEERF)," the college said in a statement. "The Student Portion of HEERF was 100% distributed to eligible students. Not every student at the College received the aid; only students who were eligible received aid. This aid was distributed directly to the students and could be used for any need."

Gaston College said it used its institution portion of the funding to helps students as well.

"For example, the College purchased 50 laptops and bags and 25 mobile hotspots to loan to students in need," the college said. "Also, we gave students a GC Safe Kit (including face mask with filter, first aid kit, forehead thermometer strips, tissues, hand sanitizer, GC Safe Tips and GC T-shirt)."

In addition, Gaston College used the money to allow students to retake courses they did not complete in the spring at no additional cost, the college said.

According to Gaston College, it has not yet dispersed its second round of HEERF funding, but expects to distribute half of the money in April.

The latest records show colleges and universities have spent almost 75% of their initial HEERF funding allocations.